As I had cause to observe last weekend, the great divide between birders and nonbirders is best expressed through gulls. Owls and eagles and ducks and hummingbirds and parrots and woodpeckers are all things that a regular nonbirding joe or jane can, with time and a few color photographs, see the appeal of. Even sparrows, if you choose the right species and play your cards right, can be elevated to ‘cute’ status. Pigeons are much-reviled but their cousins the doves more than make up for it by evoking symbolic sentiments of peace and well-being. Gulls, well… as I was moved to tweet after a long day on the Brooklyn coast, “you can see the most interesting gull in the world and non-birders will just be like ‘oh. a sea gull.'”
Of course, that raises an important question – what is the most interesting gull in the world?
We tossed this idea around on Facebook for a while and came to few conclusions. My first instinct was that the rarest gull would rank high on the ‘most interesting’ scale, but that’s a lister’s instinct – a sort of stamp-collecting bias, at best. Donna Schulman countered with a very cogent observation – while in the Galapagos, she saw people forsake the terrifically rare but only somewhat pretty Lava Gull to get photographs of the more common but far more visually appealing Swallow-tailed Gull. Aesthetic charm is probably a big part of making a bird interesting to outsiders, and unfortunately most gulls fall fairly short in both form and voice.
Not all, though. Consider the Ivory Gull. Sure, it makes the birder’s heart race for its sheer listing value, but is it not kind of pretty too? Small and white and rounded and basicly cute, could it not be the Turtle Dove to the rest of the Laridae‘s Rock Pigeons? If you would kindly ignore the fact that it eats putrid, bloating seals, it’s adorable. For that matter, what about the Ross’s Gull? It’s pink. Pink! Sometimes. A little bit.
But cute is not the same as interesting, as a brief survey of OKCupid will tell you just as well as birds can. Interesting implies something a little more punk-rock. The Swallow-tailed Gull aforementioned has that edgy look, with its red eye-liner and eccentric bill. So does the Heermann’s Gull, which looks like it has stolen someone else’s head.
And what about lifestyle? Gulls are generalists, as a group, and unfortunately that does not get a lot of respect from humans, even though we’re the greatest generalists of all. Anything that can live off our garbage gets denigrated, when probably we owe it thanks for cleaning up after us. Still, those Ivory Gulls surviving off those putrid seals are tough cookies. So are the tiny Kittiwakes that dance over the waves for leagues. So, for that matter, are the Ring-billed Gulls of Staten Island, considering that they haven’t all died of cancer yet. But you can’t force people to find Staten Island interesting in any regard.
What say you? What is the most interesting gull in the world?
Heermann’s Gull by Lee Karney courtesy of USFWS